According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “The top priority of the federal government, as we work together to support authorities in Florida, is protecting the lives and safety of those in affected areas,” as noted in a recent press release.
But some critics have pointed out that Florida’s leadership has done little to prepare the rapidly-growing state for stronger storms brought on by climate change and sea level rise. Meanwhile, the mainstream media has worked 24/7 documenting the damage wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, without mentioning climate change as a potential factor in what have been two of the most destructive storms in recent memory. By the time the damages are tallied up, they together will become the most expensive natural disasters to hit U.S. soil.
Florida’s governor Rick Scott, for example, has been a constant presence on the news while Irma has heaped destruction on the state of 20 million people. But during his tenure, Scott sidestepped any discussion of climate change by saying, “I am not a scientist” when asked about his views on the topic. Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, a former Republican now serving as a Democratic representative in Congress, set greenhouse gas emissions targets and clean energy goals during his one-term tenure as governor. But under Scott’s watch, those directives have largely been scrapped, while state employees have allegedly been instructed to avoid the use of terms such as “climate change,” “global warming” and “sustainability.”
Meanwhile, climate action has accelerated at the local level across Florida. Miami Beach, for example, already invested in expensive infrastructure to cope with flooding attributed to sea level rise. Counties in southeastern Florida have partnered on the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which seeks to develop adaptation and mitigation strategies in order to prepare the region for everything from volatile weather to rising seas. Estimates suggest that without more proactive planning, much of the $1 trillion of losses in the real estate market nationwide could occur in Florida during this century – and the Sunshine State’s property values could crater sooner than expected as more storms cause additional damage and insurers simply refuse to underwrite policies for homes and condominiums built on Florida’s lengthy shores.
But while Scott and Florida’s political leadership face their share of criticism for seeking federal aid while suppressing climate change awareness, the mainstream media as fallen victim to the same issue. Writing for Quartz, Jeremy Deaton offered this assessment:
“Irma’s descent on Florida offers reporters yet another opportunity to connect the dots. The bullet has been fired. Reporters need to show Americans who pulled the trigger.”
Deaton explained that the major broadcasting networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, have been loath to discuss climate change because the issue is seen as polarizing. By covering the science, media outlets risk the fury of many viewers and make advertisers skittish. During the quiet final week of summer last month, NBC and ABC’s nightly news shows each had about 8.5 million viewers – CBS was behind with a still notable 6.2 million people watching. Contrast those numbers with CNN’s one million prime-time viewers or the 2.3 million digital describers to the New York Times.
But while just about every other major news outlet has discussed climate change – including the Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR and CNN (mocking Rush Limbaugh for fleeing Irma after he bellowed news coverage about Irma was to stoke “panic”) – the major news networks were largely silent. One CBS news shows briefly discussed the problem; but the ABC and NBC completely overlooked the role climate change plays in storm strength.
Millennials may roll their eyes and ask, “Who watches network news, anyway?” but the fact is that older demographics do tune in regularly. And these happen to be the citizens who are often the most influential, either with their pocketbooks or the decisions they make at the polls. Hence avoiding the subject ends up becoming a lost opportunity for political influence. Even if some refuse to believe the science, the evidence suggests these storms are becoming worse – and citizens will have to understand why cities, states and counties will have to spend more on infrastructure in order to continue to enjoy living and working on the country’s coasts.
Image credit: Hermann Wecke/Flickr